About 17 years ago, Canon-McMillan High School English teacher Meg Pankiewicz invited a Holocaust survivor to talk to her classes when she was teaching a unit on the genocide.
She drove to the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill to pick him up, “and in walked Sam Gottesman, this little old man with white hair, and my life was changed,” recalled Pankiewicz.
Pankiewicz and Gottesman struck up a close friendship that endured until Gottesman died last year at the age of 95.
Over the past nearly two decades, Pankiewicz has often shared with her literature students the story of Gottesman, who was a teenager living in the former Czechoslovakia when the atrocities of the German occupation took place. In his family of seven children, only Gottesman, his father and one sister survived.
Starting in August, Pankiewicz introduced a semester-long Holocaust literature class.
The school district initially planned to offer one section, but interest in the elective class was so overwhelming – more than 100 students signed up – that Pankiewicz is teaching four sections, two each semester.
The class is being introduced at the same time Canon-McMillan was designated as a “No Place for Hate” school by the Anti-Defamation League, a program that celebrates diversity and fights bias, discrimination and bullying in schools.
“This is a continuation of the ‘No Place for Hate’ mission,” said Pankiewicz. “Having a course like this speaks volumes about how important it is to learn from the Holocaust, and I hope it’s another stepping stone to create more tolerance and empathy in students.”
The course covers the historical background of the Holocaust, the history of antisemitism, and the dangers of hate and complicit behavior. Students are studying nonfiction and fiction literature, Nazi propaganda, survivors’ memoirs and testimonials, film and photography.
The Holocaust literature class is open only to juniors and seniors, because of the graphic content.
“They’re going to see some very graphic things. I’m not sugar coating anything. They’re going to be very uncomfortable. They’re going to cry,” said Pankiewicz. “But it’s important to be authentic to the event and the victims. I want this class to create in them an empathy that they carry throughout their lives.”
Senior Reagan Garner, who is taking the Holocaust class, was a student in Pankiewicz’s 11th-grade English class. Garner was moved by how passionately Pankiewicz taught about the Holocaust and discussed how bigotry, racism and hate speech exists in the world – including the United States – today.
“I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust, and not just from a textbook,” said Garner. “I can’t think of a better time in history to study the Holocaust than today. Everything is so divided, and we’re seeing how harshly people can turn against each other. It’s important to help us see why we should care about each other and stand up for injustices.”
Pankiewicz said Holocaust education is her “passion.”
She is certified as a master teacher of Holocaust studies, and fellowships with the Holocaust Center and other organizations enabled her to completed coursework throughout Europe, including Poland, Austria, Belgium and France, where she visited every death camp.
She remembers “just sitting there crying” at sites like the Majdanek Death Camp in Poland, where a mausoleum contains a mound of ashes of the victims killed there.
Pankiewicz called the Holocaust “the greatest cautionary tale we have,” and said it’s important to teach lessons about such atrocities as the Holocaust and the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides to prevent them from happening again.
“It starts with hate speech, and it’s very methodical. If you look at every single case of genocide – Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, it starts with hate speech and discrimination, the ideology of us versus them,” said Pankiewicz.
The Holocaust class is especially important today, she said, with hate incidents on the rise in the United States.
Pankiewicz noted the Department of Homeland Security’s recent report that white supremacists are the most lethal threat to the United States.
“The Holocaust teaches students the dangers of hate, the dangers of silence, and how being silent is being complicit,” she said.
Pankiewicz encourages students to realize the impact their choices and actions have on others, and “to live a more empathetic, open-minded life.”
The Holocaust class has influenced Garner to decide that she doesn’t want to be a bystander to bias and hate.
“It’s hard to realize that this actually happened, this was people’s lives. Those experiences are what really happened to human beings,” said Garner. “This class is helping me to be more empathetic, to see others’ perspectives. It makes me realize that I want to make a positive difference and have an impact on the world.”
Holocaust survivors are aging, and younger generations are unaware of the Holocaust. So it’s up to others to share their stories and the lessons of the Holocaust, Pankiewicz said.
She expressed concern about recently released survey showing millennias and Gen Z don’t know basic facts about the Holocaust.
According to the survey, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, nearly two-thirds of American adults between the ages of 18 and 39 didn’t know that 6 million Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust.
Almost half of respondents said they had seen social media posts denying or distorting facts about the Holocaust, and more than half said they had seen Nazi symbols in their community or online. And 23% said they thought the Holocaust was a myth.
“I think empathy is the most important quality a person can have. If people knew the events of the Holocaust, I believe it would make them live differently. It would make them conduct their lives differently,” said Pankiewicz.
She recalled how Gottesman used to carry a piece of bread in his pocket wherever he went – to the doctor’s, to the grocery store, or on a walk – because he was afraid of not having food.
“I do what I do because of Sam and the other survivors. The relationships I have with them, to this day, are what constantly drive me,” said Pankiewicz. “They have taught me so much, about overcoming trauma and so many other things, and I try to bring that into my classroom.”